Friday, October 26, 2012

World Series Game 2: All Giants, Big or Small

By Jeff Kallman

Now this is a novel position for the San Francisco Giants to assume. They're not used to being up two games to none in a postseason set this year. This could be the start of something … weird?

The way they got into this position was probably weird enough even by the standards of a Giants team that's spent at least half this postseason benefitting from the trans-dimensional. Can you remember any team winning a World Series game with nothing but a double play and a sacrifice fly to score the only two runs they proved necessary?

Now it's not the Giants, but the Detroit Tigers in the hole 2-0. Don't ask if the Giants are complaining.

"It definitely feels better than having our backs against the wall," Game 2 starter and winner Madison Bumgarner drawled, a few moments after Detroit second baseman Omar Infante could do nothing with closer Sergio Romo's dancing slider other than to pop it up to Brandon Belt about thirty feet left of first base.

After two consecutive bludgeonings — one to get the Giants here at the St. Louis Cardinals' expense, ending the National League Championship Series, and one to start them off right against these Tigers in Game 1 — the Giants maybe had one more thing to prove in this World Series.

And they proved it. When necessary, they can beat you with nothing more than virtuoso pitching, virtuoso defense, and small ball that was so small they got their Game 2 win with a grand total of two base hits involved in building their 2-0 score and neither of the hits responsible for getting the runs home.

Bumgarner had looked like a nervous rookie in his earlier postseason turns, at least until he managed to correct a mechanical problem about which he declined coyly to elaborate in his first post-game interview. On Thursday night the spindly left-hander looked like Sandy Koufax, and his Giants mates looked like the one-time Dodgers stereotype, in which those 1960s teams had so small a batting reputation that you joked a leadoff hit batsman equaled a major rally.

He matched Tiger starter Doug Fister and out-pitched Fister in just the right places. He struck out 8, walked only 2, surrendered a measly 2 hits, threw first-pitch strikes to almost half the hitters he faced. Fister, for his part, pitched a gutsy outing of his own, particularly after coming out better than alive after Gregor Blanco, the Giants' left fielder, lined on right upside and off the right side of Fister's skull on the crown of the tall right-hander's cap.

Fister shook it off practically at once, sort of using a full-count walk, bases-loading walk to Brandon Crawford as a re-tuning before getting Bumgarner, who can handle a bat and hit a pair of bombs during the regular season, to pop out to shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Surely some of the cheering from Giants fans had to do with offering Fister praise for surviving what could have been Brandon McCarthy redux and pitching back early and strongly enough.

The way Bumgarner and Fister pitched, before Hunter Pence's seventh-inning leadoff single ended Fister's own impressive evening, you began to wonder if the eventual victor would prove to have gotten lucky in winning it. And that's just about what the Giants were, starting right after Fister's reliever, rookie left-hander Drew Smyly, lost Belt to a hard-earned walk with nobody out.

The questions before the house were sure to include why Detroit manager Jim Leyland, an old and wise hand under ordinary circumstances, didn't end Fister's night before Pence came up to hit, sending out Octavio Dotel to face Pence before inviting Smyly to have his way with the following three left-handed Giant hitters.

Blanco on 3-1 dropped a bunt on the third base line that looked like a grapefruit rolling dead after falling to the floor from a supermarket display. Smyly came over. So did Detroit third baseman Miguel Cabrera and plate umpire Dan Iassogna. Catcher Gerald Laird followed up the line. The ball slowed to a dead halt on the baseline dirt and on the fair side of the line.

A Giant fan would probably tell you that was extraterrestrial repayment for the two plays that probably saved the game for them in the first place, one of which occurred a half-inning before they nudged the first run home.

Bumgarner opened the top of the seventh by dueling Cabrera into a walk, going from 2-2 to a foul off, ball three, another pair of fouls, and ball four. Bringing up Prince Fielder, whom even a left-hander doesn't necessarily want to see at the plate with even one man on. But Fielder rapped a strike one service right back up to Bumgarner himself, and Bumgarner wheeled as though he'd planned this in advance, bagging Cabrera at second, with shortstop Brandon Crawford turning like a carousel to throw Fielder out. Then, the left-hander got Delmon Young to bounce out high but sure to Crawford for the side.

That was five innings after Bumgarner opened by hitting Fielder with a 1-1 pitch and watching in soft horror as Young followed by shooting a strike one pitch right up to and past third base and down the left field line. Fielder ground around second, barreled toward third, and Detroit third base coach Gene Lamont saw nothing wrong with sending the big lug home just as Blanco throwing in missed his cutoff man. Nothing wrong except Marco Scutaro, backing up Crawford as Blanco's throw sailed past.

Scutaro grabbed it, wheeled, threw home with a bullet, and Fielder was beaten by a literal foot — Buster Posey behind the plate got a tag on Fielder's back just before his left foot touched the plate.

A team that can dodge bullets like that with dodging like the Giants' isn't exactly going to waste an opportunity to get a run wherever they can find it if they're not doing all that much hitting on the night thus far. When you're turning your mistakes into profits, you must feel charmed.

Romo calls it a team-wide will to survive. "We've been in nail-biters all season long," he said. "We're a gritty, grindy team. Every game that we're in, we feel that we're in a fight. Today was no different."

So the Giants had gritted and ground their way to ducks on the pond, nobody out, and Crawford at the plate in the seventh, after equaling the Tigers to that point for trying and failing to pry anything out of the starting pitcher. Now, Crawford took ball one, then dialed the most profitable possible Area Code 4-6-3 double play, Pence jogging home from third and pouring into the Giants dugout, looking for all the world as though he'd dodged a straitjacket on the way across the plate.

Smyly started off promisingly enough in the bottom of the eighth when he shook off a leadoff walk to Angel Pagan by dropping a delicious strike three slider in on Scutaro, who seemed to be caught by surprise for looking at a pitch he probably could have drilled.

When Pagan stole second on ball one to Pablo Sandoval, Game 1's strategic bombing hero, Leyland ordered Smyly to turn it into an intentional walk, then brought in Octavio Dotel for the right-right showdown with Posey while double-switching Quentin Berry to left field and into the number nine lineup slot, and moving Dan Kelly (who'd been subbing for a sub, Andy Dirks) to right, the better to fortify his late defensive shore-up further.

Except that Posey earned himself a somewhat surprising four-pitch, very unintentional walk. And Psycho Pence fouled off three consecutive 0-2 services before lofting a fly deep enough to right to send home Pagan.

Exit Dotel, enter Phil Coke, himself coming in to assume a position thus far unfamiliar to him in this postseason, his team in the hole. He dispatched Belt on an inning-ending swinging strikeout, but he could only join his teammates helplessly in the dugout as Romo shrugged Berry into a leadoff fly out to Blanco, pounded Austin Jackson into a four-pitch swinging strikeout, and then took care of Infante after falling behind 2-0.

And exit, apparently Bumgarner's sad seasonal reversal. Until a start against the Dodgers in August, when he threw 123 pitches, he'd had a 2.93 earned run average and hitters were probably lucky to hit .218 against him. After that outing against the Dodgers, and including his harsh NLCS outing against the Cardinals, Bumgarner showed a 6.85 ERA for the spell.

Then came Thursday night. Back came the Bumgarner of the pre-August 2.93. Just what the Tigers didn't need, any more than they needed Bumgarner ending the fourth by picking Infante off first dead.

He doesn't have to go into details about the mechanical correction he and pitching coach Dave Righetti made before Game 2. All he has to do is keep it corrected. "I hadn't done a good job of making pitches this postseason, until today," he said.

If this series goes to a sixth game, the Giants will be needing the corrected Bumgarner once again. We already know the Giants can play small ball with as many of the best of them as they played bombs away Wednesday night.

"The will to survive, the will to be the last one standing," Romo said. "It's still there."

They won't make the mistake of pronouncing the Tigers dead, though. They know, too, that the Tigers have their own will to survive. That's how they stole the American League Central from the White Sox at just short of the eleventh hour and the division series from the upstart Athletics. That's how they probably hope to start stealing the rest of the World Series when they go back to Detroit Saturday.

Touchingly, Game Two's tone was set by a triple-amputee veteran of two Afghanistan tour. Escorted by Romo, Game One's winner Barry Zito (who has a charity to benefit wounded veterans, Strikeouts for Troops), and Hall of Famer Willie Mays, Marine Cpl. Nicholas Kimmel, who lost both legs and his left arms in the second tour, stood in front of the mound as Romo trotted down to behind the plate to receive.

Kimmel threw his own kind of floater to the plate for what would have been called a perfect high strike if it had been a regulation pitch. A man who personifies a fighting man's will to survive, opening a baseball game won by a team that boasts of a will to survive on the field. You couldn't ask for a more poetic telegraph to a World Series pitching duel.

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